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This illusion of invincibility often was fostered by the greed of some early dojo proprietors—many of them ex-GIs who knew little more about the techniques than their students—by the emphasis on karate as a "killer" defense; by the vivid, if fictional, exploits of James Bond; by the sexy gymnastics of Diana Rigg as Mrs. Peel in the TV series The Avengers; and, in the case of kung-fu, by the cinematic derring-do of the late Bruce Lee.
Whenever public interest in one of the martial arts showed signs of waning, dojo operators took advantage of American confusion with Oriental names, and as many "systems" of karate were advertised as there are sexual positions in the Kama Sutra. Anybody could call his version of the art anything—after a year (or less) of training he could open his own dojo, coining a name or simply naming it after himself: "Karate! Introducing the deadly Caspar Milquetoast-do!" (In Japanese do is one of several words that simply mean "the way.") When kung-fu entered the scene, many karate studios became kung-fu dojos. All the owner had to do was repaint the sign.
Distressed by these corruptions, the Japanese sent a number of instructors to the U.S., and several legitimate schools were established. But some of the masters innocently contributed to the vulgarization of karate by TV demonstrations of board and brick breaking. These spectacular stunts, all quite authentic, inflamed Western minds. (It was such a display, seen when he was only seven years old, that first engaged Mike McAndrews' interest. Actually, they are not difficult for a serious student.) The board breaker, delivered with the side of the hand, was promptly named "karate chop" by media commentators. It was an easy phrase to remember, particularly if you pronounced it wrong, as most Westerners did and do—"kuh-r�tty" instead of "kah-rah-tay," with equal emphasis on all syllables. The phrase rolls off the tongue in a way the move's real name—shuto, ridge or knife hand—never would.
The language barrier has caused other misconceptions. Wouldn't any thug quail if his intended victim suddenly crouched, raised his hands in knife-edge positions, and screamed, "Hai karate!"? If he were an amateur mugger who believed in the movies, he might—but not if he knew anything about karate. In Mike McAndrews' phrase, the victim probably would "wind up in a field of flowers." Yell "high-kuh-r�tty!" in Tokyo and no one will think you are dangerous—just crazy and possibly talking Swahili. "Hai" means "yes" in Japanese, while "kuh-r�tty" means nothing (the Japanese aren't very good at interpreting broken versions of their very precise language).
The loud cries heard in karate, which some tone-deaf translator rendered as "hai karate" but which to an attuned ear sound like "toe-ay!" are not intended to frighten an opponent but to provide the ultimate focus for the fusion of inner energy—the ki—with exterior force, whether it is to be delivered by foot or fist. All the Asian martial arts insist that the vital center of that internal energy—heart, spirit, call it what you will—is located about two inches below the navel, and can be directed outward only from there. Sound silly? Well, we often say a brave man has endured "by guts alone," don't we? And how about that prim old euphemism, "intestinal fortitude"? The twain may be closer than we think.
The martial artists believe that ki not only unites all one's forces, but actually can be projected, both offensively and defensively. The most effective blows in karate—and in kung-fu and tae kwon do as well—are piston-like punches (or kicks) delivered from a fiat-footed stance and retracted a split second after impact—no follow-through, as some critics of karate have said in disparagement. There are attested instances of men struck in the abdomen, by blows that barely marked the skin, who died later of ruptured spleens or kidneys, destroyed by the shock wave of energy dispatched by fist or foot.
Do not, however, assume that learning the physical side of karate, kung-fu or tae kwon do is any easier than the mental struggle required. The body must be forced into unnatural positions (in one karate kick the foot is twisted at a right angle to present its outer "knife edge" to the opponent). Even the basic stances are hip-wrenchers for Westerners.
A book could be written about the wonders of the martial arts (many have been), but the principal point to be made here is that thousands of hours of agonizing effort are necessary to create a "peaceful warrior," and even then situations will arise in the streets or in bars that cannot be solved by "empty hands." A favorite aphorism of the arts is that a black belt should have "a mind like water," calm and unruffled in meeting unavoidable attack but quite satisfied to flow downhill—or across the street—if that will avert violence.
"When I first started learning karate in my senior year in high school, I used to get into fights all the time," Mike McAndrews says. "I thought I had to prove myself. The better I got, the fewer fights I had—and not because I was getting a reputation as a martial artist; most people didn't even know that. I just learned I didn't have to."
The grandson of a former territorial governor of Hawaii, Samuel Wilder King, and the nephew of a federal judge, McAndrews attended Punahou, a private college preparatory school. The "Puns" were natural targets for less privileged youngsters, and the fact that McAndrews has a trace of Hawaiian blood did not exempt him from challenges.